The story of the refugee is one which does not sell newspapers in Malaysia. We are so consumed with our lives and making money, or providing for our own families, that we ignore the plight of people, many of whom, had to choose between survival and death.
In some parts of the world, principally in the west, refugee and asylum seeker children aged 5-16 have the same entitlement to full-time education as other children in their host country.
Our government has not ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. They cannot work, have access to affordable healthcare and education. In Malaysia, we only pay lip service to helping refugees.
Who are we to deny refugee children an opportunity to fulfil their aspirations, and have hope for the future?
In June 2018, Mohamad Ab Halim, the chairman of the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI), which provides support for displaced people, wrote about the plight of refugee families in Malaysia.
Around 5000 people, from about 1900 refugee families, are registered with the MSRI. Mohamad Ab urged the Malaysian authorities to increase their efforts to reduce the suffering of the refugees, and push for a more active role in the international political arena. He said that crises affecting nation-states, as occurred in Myanmar and Palestine, will create refugees.
A few months later, in a speech at the 40th Malaysian Paediatric Association Congress at the Ipoh Convention Centre, the Sultanah of Perak, Zara Salim, echoed Mohamad Ab’s call to help refugees.
She encouraged the authorities to alleviate the suffering of refugee children. She proposed that they be given fair and equal treatment, with respect to educational opportunities and the provision of health care.
In a report, by the Malay Mail, she said that children of refugees are the innocent victims of the actions of adults. She said, “The world is witnessing a crisis of refugees with millions of people forced to move and seek shelter in safer places, camps at the country’s border or attempt to enter the border of a neighbouring country.
“Now, there are 150,000 refugees from Myanmar, Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan in this country, of which 25,000, or 17 per cent, were under the age of 18, and only 30 per cent of this group were able to obtain education at community learning centres.”
MSRI dismisses the confusion that exists in Malaysia, about the term “refugee”; for many Malaysians, it is synonymous with the term illegal migrant. A refugee is NOT an “illegal,” or an undocumented immigrant. An asylum seeker can only obtain refugee status after passing a vetting process which is defined by international law.
The MSRI fully supports the call for the government to ratify the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Unless this convention is signed, the onus for the welfare falls on the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
This means that Palestinians and UNHCR-recognised refugees from other countries will continue to suffer in immigration detention, where they, and their children, are locked up, whilst waiting for a country to resettle them, or they return to their country of origin.
One of the responsibilities of the MSRI is to provide aid, to the refugees, during their stay in Malaysia.
Aid comes in many forms, including refugee schools, adult education classes, health programmes, as well as livelihood and emergency support. Its objective is to make the refugees become more independent.
MSRI warned that without the implementation of new policies to reduce the suffering of the refugees, the families are denied access to legal representation, education, and affordable healthcare.
It has also suggested that all refugees, currently in Malaysia, be given the right to work legally with an IMM13 permit, in a process which has already existed for refugees from south Thailand, Aceh, and Bosnia. The Mahar programme made similar provisions for refugees from Syria, including Syrian Palestinians.
MSRI advises that allowing refugees to work, would reduce the burden on the authorities, and at the same time, enable them to help contribute to the Malaysian economy.
As everyone is aware, education empowers people, but currently, only 40 per cent of the refugee children in Malaysia, attend school. The majority are denied access to education.
MSRI said that refugee children have the right to learn and become useful members of society, wherever they are. They urged the Malaysian government not to prevent any child from recognising its potential.
The signing of the 1951 Refugee Convention, would give refugees access to work, access to affordable healthcare, and ensure that all children in Malaysia, regardless of their immigration status, would receive an education.
Do you know if things have improved for refugees in Malaysia?
If you are a refugee, would you like to share your story?